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The Science of Motivation

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I’m a big fan of Dan Pink.  First, it’s hard not to like a guy who describes his former role as chief speechwriter for then-Veep, Al Gore, as his last real job; who describes his contribution to Yale Law School as being in the part of the class that made the upper ninety percentile possible; who’s written three transformative best-selling business books, including A Whole New Mind, Johnny Bunko, and my favorite, Free Agent Nation which he ingloriously lists among “Other Projects” at DanPink.com. Oh, to be so good.

While his latest book, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us won’t be out for several months (December 2009), his recent presentation at TEDGlobal hints at what’s to come. Corporate America, he asserts, is ignorant (my word, not his; but I’d be willing to bet that sentiment will come through in his book). Pink points to the fact that study after study shows that incentive-based management does not work. In fact, according to Pink, it’s actually been shown to stifle creativity and reduce performance. Yet, the large majority of companies cling to carrot and stick-based motivation. When it doesn’t work, they may try different vegetables and call it innovation, but the fundamental approach never changes.


What does motivate people? According to Pink, three things: autonomy, mastery, and purpose. In short, people want to excel, they want to contribute, and they want to work on their terms. Hmm, that pretty much sums up freelancers and entrepreneurs doesn’t it? We want those things so badly that we’re willing to leave the safety of a paycheck, retirement plan, and job description to get them.

A handful of companies are finally getting it. Pink cites Google‘s policy of letting it’s people spend 20% of their time working on something other than what they’re supposed to be working on as a prime example of how well these principles work in practice. More than half of Google’s new products are hatched during this “play time.” Best Buy and others have achieved amazing increases in performance by letting their people work where, when, and how they want while only focusing on results only.

Two years ago, companies were jousting for talent. Then came the recession and with it layoffs, unemployment, and employee angst. In times such as these, people may be willing to settle for carrots, but this too shall pass. The factors that were predicted to lead to widespread labor shortages two years ago are still present. Smart companies are positioning themselves for the recovery. The ones that are willing to abandon management techniques that were shaped in the days of sweatshops and typing pools are not only going to grab the best people, they’re going to empower those people be the best they can possibly be.

So, now I want to know what motivates YOU? Is it autonomy, mastery and/or purpose?

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  • John

    Dan Pink is awesome. I have also been a big fan of his.
    Autonomy has always been big for me but I do love working with a great team. To me autonomy is important but it is secondary to authenticity. Being true to your self, is more valuable than being independent.
    Mastery is also very important, but I call it excellence. That is what life should really be about, achieving personal excellence in all the major areas of our life. It is almost like the ancient Grecian idea of excellence.
    Purpose is also everything, I call that one “contribution.” The quality of our lives is measured by how much we give to the world, not how much we take.
    What motives me is AUTHENTICITY, EXCELLENCE and CONTRIBUTION.

  • Paul

    “autonomy, mastery, and purpose”? Doesn’t ring true to me.

  • http://www.WomackCompany.com Jason W. Womack, MEd, MA

    Thanks for a great article, and some nice reminders. I got to interview Dan a week or so ago; had some good things to say in 15 minutes! http://www.youtube.com/jasonwomack#p/u/1/B1zhvRgm8eU

  • Agirlswin

    What others will not admit, but should, as it is indeed a motivator – Money.  The motivators already mentioned are all valuable attributes, and true from a non-monetary perspective!  But, I assure you for most, including me, it is Money.   Do not be averse to admit that!  It is what feeds, shelters, and “pays”.  Most cannot do without this motivator.  The other motivating factors mentioned are very nice to ascertain, but only pays-off non-monetarily (also, achieved, if you choose to “volunteer” your time & talents).  One will often seek to find these elements in most work pursued, as that is what can get you through any project or task, but most likely is not the underlying or the overriding factor.  Doing a good job, so I can keep my job and be paid, is my motivator.   The additional motivators (“autonomy, mastery, and purpose”) are positive elements to satisfy my appetite for self gratification.